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Michael E. Bailey on the Problem of Patriotism
My subject is an embarrassing one for the educated and sophisticated, people like professors, college administrators, the editors and writers of the major magazines and newspapers, and those who produce our movies. It takes more courage among the sophisticated in the Academy and elsewhere to state without qualification that you love America than to declare yourself friendly to the United Nations, the idea of world government, or the ideals of socialism.
The key words here are, of course, "without qualification." It is perfectly acceptable to praise America—even in the Academy—as long as you make absolutely clear that what you are praising is not America as she presently is but America as she can be. Praising the idea and ideals of America, in fact, requires that we temper our love of America as she presently is.
Why is this? Why are sophisticated people so uneasy about loving their nation? For Christians, skepticism about patriotism is sometimes rooted in the legacy of Christian thought. Scripture reminds followers of Christ that their deepest citizenship is in heaven, not in any earthly nation. We can never place our full confidence in this world, because even the most awesome products of human greatness and labor may be reduced to ashes with relative ease.
Somehow I suspect that most of the unease in the academy—the part of the world of the sophisticated I know best—is not explained by rampant Augustinianism. Its unease may reflect its intellectual biases—and pretensions.
Professors in the hard sciences enjoy more-or-less clear and universally accepted standards for measuring success in their fields, but professors in the liberal arts—where opposition to patriotism is strongest—do not have them. Absent clear markers for judging progress in their fields—and therefore their pecking order in the Academy—many professors in the liberal arts fall to posturing and pompousness.
More importantly, professors in the liberal arts aspire to an intellectual vantage point that transcends the claims of authority, including the authorities and allegiances of one's time and place. Therefore, an oft-stated goal of a liberal arts education is to liberate oneself from the biases and limitations of one's cultural inheritance. Too warm an embrace of America indicates backward provincialism.
Ironically, the Academy's embrace of some deeply American commitments also contributes to its uneasy patriotism. The Declaration of Independence begins with a pre-political understanding of freedom and states explicitly that it is our right, even our duty, to make government respect the pre-political rights of individuals. And what is the fundamental right as Americans understand it? The right to pursue our happiness.
Much experience, however, demonstrates that the vigorous and self-conscious pursuit of happiness rarely terminates in genuine happiness. For one thing, you can always have just a little bit more of whatever makes you happiest. And so Americans are invited by their founding document to view their situation as they actually live it as unsatisfying and even intolerable. To say that what we have today is really good, or even good enough, is to reveal an unacceptable and un-American complacency about the existing order of things.
Our politicians are typically called on to make things better, not to preserve or conserve existing good. In this sense, neither Republicans nor Democrats are genuinely conservative.
In addition to the effects upon patriotism of our belief in the pursuit of happiness, a second characteristically American reason for our uneasy patriotism is rooted in a decidedly American view of justice. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln stated that America is dedicated to a proposition. Now that fact is in itself a very odd thing. Most peoples around the world and throughout history have been dedicated to more understandable and concrete practices: a nation's language, its customs, its traditions, its history, its natural beauty, its ethnicity, its past heroes and leaders.
Lincoln tells us that America is dedicated to none of these things. It is dedicated to a proposition. And to what proposition are we dedicated? That all men are created equal. America, in other words, is dedicated to a faith claim not just about Americans but about all of humanity. I say "faith claim" because it is not at all obvious how we are equal: People certainly have radically different physical attributes and mental abilities.
How, then, are we all equal? We all die; we are mortal. And if we are mortal, we know we cannot be God, who is immortal. And if we aren't God, it follows that we have no business acting like him. And this means that we can't believe that others were made merely for our pleasure and gain. All people have rights we need to respect.
America's commitment to a proposition about humanity raises the question of how American patriotism is possible at all. After all, the most profound American political thought is a pre-political understanding of humanity. All men are created equal. Patriotism, in contrast, is the love of these people, this land, these customs, and even these ideals. American political thought is about universal rights; patriotism is about our particular interests, affections, and loyalties.
And so here we discover an important root of the sophisticated uneasiness toward patriotism: The sophisticated are obsessed with justice, and patriotism is unjust. Patriotism is unjust because love itself—at least in its application in the everyday world—is unjust. Love is, in practice, always focused attention and care. To devote one's time, focus, tender affection, and labor to one person is inevitably to ignore other persons. Love is horribly prejudicial.
When moms and dads change the diapers of their little ones, give them music lessons, assist them with their homework, and help defray the costs of college, they are unjustly favoring their children over others who do not have these advantages. It is not accidental, then, that in The Republic Plato playfully pokes fun at the zeal of some for achieving justice by depicting children as being raised in the just state by the state itself. What other than collective child rearing can insure equal treatment?
Even agape—self-sacrificing Christian love of humanity—is not practiced to everyone all at once but to one person at a time: to this needy person, to this hurting individual. Even Jesus never cured disease for humanity; he cured the diseases of particular persons he befriended. He did not end humanity's hunger; he fed those around him. He seemed to value relationship with individuals more than the generic elimination of suffering.
A Pitch for Love
So here I want to make a pitch for love. And, yes, love even of one's nation. Why should Americans love their nation? Why should Iowans love Iowa? Why should New Yorkers love New York? Why should people love their neighborhood, their street? Why should parents love their children?
One possible reason is that these things earn our love. And, in truth, we must admit that it is far easier to love lovely things than plain or ugly things. But to choose whether to love one's hometown based on a balance sheet of its merits and faults is, I daresay, a risky proposition. Likewise, choosing to love our children in proportion to how lovely they are is a surefire recipe for parental neglect; it is not clear how, at three in the morning, a screaming newborn infant merits one's attentive love.
I suggest we love these things for no good reason other than that we should love them. We just should; it's deeply mysterious as to why.
Maybe we love because we were loved first. But this is not a good reason in the ordinary sense of things. Because you were beaten as a child first does not mean you should beat your children. Maybe we love merely because we expect good things to happen to us when we do so. But this reason is also unsatisfying. As all young people know, we often love against our obvious self-interest.
There is no avoiding the problem: Love is prejudicial and (apparently) irrational and therefore in deep tension with a large chunk of what the sophisticated world stands for. Love of nation is no different; it is prejudicial and (apparently) irrational. We all know the sad truth: Thousands of people throughout the world die every day of dysentery; why don't we care about them? The implication of the question is that it is simply unfair to be upset about the loss of American lives, either at home or abroad, if we don't grieve equally for the suffering of others.
Well, we should grieve for any unjust suffering. Justice tells us to treat equals equally, and if we all are created equal, then we should love everyone equally. But we don't. And it's not clear how to do so effectually. Persons are situated in a host of nestled communities: family, church, work, neighborhood, town, nation, world. The farther removed from us is the community, the harder it is for us to love the people in it.
And so we have three choices: We may continue to love imperfectly and be unbothered by this fact; we may choose not to love at all until we can love everyone equally; or we may love as we do, typically loving those closer to us more than those further away, and loving those like us more than those who are different—all the while -recognizing that this love is fallen and imperfect and in need of greater love.
I, for one, choose loving imperfectly over loving not at all. And so we return once more to St. Augustine. Christians are uneasy patriots, but for very different reasons than our nation's most sophisticated elites. Christians do not fear loving; they fear loving without remembering that God is a jealous God who demands of us not only our deepest love but also our obedience.
It would seem that God requires of us to love those persons in the communities in which he has placed us, and to love those communities more than others not because they are better but because they stand to benefit most from our devoted care. It is good for Americans to love America with deep pride—the pride even of the unsophisticated—but it is critical that our love of nation never prevent us from embracing and living out Christ's lesson of the Good Samaritan.
As good and great as she is, America is not our final destination nor our true home. Patriotism understood by the Christian, therefore, requires devotion both to the political communities, local and national, in which we find ourselves and to those with whom we share them, as well as devotion to a prophetic model of love that urges us to love all persons, even our country's enemies, more fully. •
Michael E. Bailey is Associate Professor of Government at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia. He serves as Deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Rome, Georgia, and is married and has three daughters.